Free Will: Impossibility Paradox

Estimated read time (minus contemplative pauses): 50 min.

In 2017 I published a post called “Free Will Paradox?” The following is an attempt to refine and focus my expression of the problem alluded to in that title. Or maybe it’s a non-problem. At any rate, I think this new attempt is an improvement, but it doesn’t isolate the problem as well as I’d hoped, much less solve it (which may be a sign of its being a non-problem after all). The result is a VERY (and embarrassingly) rough draft in need of a lot of work I’m unable to do at the moment. Or think of it as a barely started puzzle whose missing pieces I might fill in later. Unless someone else beats me to it (or explains to me why this is indeed a non-problem).

I. Introduction: The Impossibility Paradox

We tend not to count an inability to perform an impossible action as evidence against free will. It would be silly, for instance, to raise my inability to run faster than light as evidence that I lack free will. At the same time, free will skepticism depends on the thesis that free will is, in some sense, impossible.

Call this apparent tension the Impossibility Paradox:

Impossibility Paradox (IP): Impossibility does not count as evidence against free will. Free will skepticism comes down to the belief that free will is impossible. Paradoxically, then, (correctly) declaring free will impossible does not settle the question of free will’s possibility or existence.

On first blush, the IP seems obviously false. Correctly declaring free will impossible must settle the question of whether we have free will. It seems, then, that the IP must involve some sort of error—a category mistake, perhaps.

In particular, it seems to me that the error must have something to do with the fact that free will is not itself an action. Rather, free will is a term we use to summarize or characterize our relation to the repertoire of actions that it is in our power (whatever that means; see below) to perform. In other words, the IP seems to be mischaracterizing free will as an action when it is more like a relation between an actor and a (potential) action or set of actions.

I am, however, unable to pinpoint where this misstep occurs in the IP’s formulation. This may be (partly) due to the fact that actions are no more things in themselves than free will is; that is, there are events or phenomena that appropriately bear the label action by virtue of being enacted. In other words, there is no action without there being a thing enacted (by an agent, whatever that may be; e.g., if I knock a glass off of a table, it is an action, but if the wind does it, it is not). At least, it seems that this is the sort of thing typically meant by the label action.

[I will use action to refer to activities performed by a mind or a body. So, estimating the √35 to be “a little less than √36, so about 5.9,” is an action for my purposes.]

Furthermore, our sub-characterizations of actions are themselves not always actions in themselves.

Choosing, for example, is a label we attach to situations in which we perform one action rather than another, with the assumption that choosing is itself an action; it’s not obvious, however, that performing one action rather than another is necessarily (i.e., always) itself an action above and beyond the action chosen. (More on choosing below.)

[I’ll put mention of terminology in italics (I’ll use italics for emphasis, as is commonly done). For quoting, within text, what someone has said/written, or might say/write (as in the above estimate of 5.9 example), I’ll use double quotation marks (” … “). I’ll use single quotation marks (‘ … ‘) for scare quotes, which simply brings attention to a word or phrase being used in a specialized way, or perhaps in an unclear or non-standard or controversial way, etc. I’ll only use scare quotes when I wish to draw attention to such things; it’s not an objectively clear-cut rule.]

Another example involves what Benjamin Libet called vetoing, in which an action that has been initiated ‘by the brain,’ so to speak, before one has had the conscious thought—i.e., has ‘decided’—to perform the action can be consciously stopped (i.e., vetoed). It seems to me that vetoing is in itself an action, but what I’m focusing here on is not vetoing, or rather ‘allowing’ or ‘deciding to allow’ the initiated action to be performed. I take it that ‘allowing’ is itself an action, though it’s not obvious whether this is a single action or a huge number of actions: i.e., each millisecond you ‘allow’ something to happen, you are performing an action labeled ‘allowing’ (or ‘not vetoing’), even if it doesn’t occur to you to veto the action.

Perhaps some instances of ‘choosing’ and ‘allowing’ don’t actually merit the label action, yet we talk as though people are ‘doing’ things in such cases. I will not dig deep into this particular difficulty, but raise the examples as representative of what I take to be the sort of challenge that makes the IP difficult (for me) to dismantle, a difficultly that more broadly has to do with, I’m guessing, characterizing the relationship of one who acts and the actions available to one who acts.

[Note, however, that inaction can also take effort, as when told “don’t move” or “don’t blink,” or, better yet, “try not to move” or “try not to blink.” Interesting, if one awakens completely paralyzed without realizing it, it seems one could ‘try’ not to move without realizing that moving is impossible. More about trying below.]

Perhaps the misstep is at the very end of a process in which we notice that an agent always has available only one action at any point during their existence, and we characterize this relationship between agent and action as “lacking free will.” Part of the point of this paper is to show that this sort of characterization ultimately fails to work for me.

More broadly, in this paper, I intend to show that, despite initially appealing solutions to the problem, the IP is not easily dismissed—at least not by me. My inability to resolve the paradox forces me to support a rather modest thesis. Namely, that whatever our standards for evaluating evidence against free will may be, they should avoid this paradox, either by resolving it outright or by reasonably bypassing it. The best I can do here is to consider why one promising solution to the problem—namely, the mischaracterization of free will as an action—fails to satisfy me.

I hope, by the way, to not be merely offering up a silly pseudo-problem (one I’ve been mulling over for about 10 years now, off and on). Whatever the IP’s merits in itself, attempting to address it strikes me as a productive way to contribute to an important related question: What counts, or should count, as evidence against free will?

I’m particularly fascinated by the role impossibility plays in addressing that question. Indeed, to address the IP, I’ll start by considering a range of actions that come in varying flavors of impossibility. The (ultimately unfulfilled) hope is to refine such considerations so that the fallacy on which the IP is grounded becomes obvious. Succeed or fail, perhaps engaging the question will illuminate what we really mean to get at with phrases like “we have/lack free will.”

First, I’ll need to say a little about the conception of free will I’m interested in here.

1.1 Conceptions of Free Will, Briefly Noted

There are differing conceptions of free will. I assume here what we might call the classical or traditional or, more descriptively, leeway conception of free will: The ability to have done other than one in fact did.

[One of my baseline sources for making sense of discussions about free will is the The Routledge Companion to Free Will (2017, edited by Kevin Timpe, Meghan Griffith, Neil Levy). See, for instance, Chapter 18: “Leeway vs. Sourcehood Conceptions of Free Will” by Kevin Timpe.”]

This conception is old and common enough [how old and common?] to be considered the default position—the one to beat, the one challenged by Frankfurt cases, and so on.

By “Frankfurt cases” I allude to the broad body of arguments and thought experiments that have followed from Harry Frankfurt’s 1969 paper “Alternate Possibilities and Moral Responsibility,” which challenges the assumption that alternative possibilities must be available to a person in order for that person to be free such that they are made morally responsible for their actions.

That assumption is turned around, so that satisfying the conditions for being morally responsible is precisely what’s needed in order to be correctly said to have free will; and, intuitively, according to those persuaded by Frankfurt cases, alternative possibilities are not needed for holding someone morally accountable for their actions.

[Read Frankfurt’s paper for free here. Or, if you decide you’d like to enter the rabbit hole, see this 2003 essay collection, Moral Responsibility and Alternative Possibilities, edited and contributed to by David Widerker and Michael McKenna; it includes Frankfurt’s original paper as well as a new essay by Frankfurt. Below, I’ll link a post in which I explain my rejection of Frankfurt cases.]

At any rate, I am not concerned here with conceptions of free will (or ‘freedom’ or whatever term you’d like to use) that exclude alternative possibilities. Some such views are quite extreme, going so far as to ascribe free will, or at least moral responsibility, to someone being fully controlled by external forces, including conscious agents (in Frankfurt cases, at least the morally responsible agent does indeed act according to their own desires and motivations; I’ll give them that).

I will touch here and there on some of those non-leeway-type conceptions, but not with a goal of convincing anyone that the leeway conception is the correct one to adopt (I do that elsewhere, which I will link to when appropriate). Rather, I am assuming that it is the correct one to adopt. Even if it isn’t, it does seem to be the conception most obviously threatened by the IP. I actually think other conceptions are threatened as well, in some way or another, but I won’t consider them here.

All this in mind, the critical point right now is that we generally consider free will to be something that, if it exists, is exercised over a range of physically possible actions. Indeed, it might be useful—and if it isn’t useful, should detract nothing—to reflect this in the ‘classical’ formulation: The ability to have done other than one did when choosing from a set of physically possible actions.

What I mean there by “physically possible” will hopefully make more sense shortly. As it stands, it doesn’t clear anything up. One problem that stands out to me is that it seems possible to have free will yet for its outward expression to be impossible—for example, when there is only one physically possible action available at any point for an actor. Some form of this worry will pop up again and again.

2. Impossibility

I will broadly distinguish two sorts of impossible actions: those that are physically impossible and those that are psychologically impossible.

To be clear, I assume the psychologically impossible to be a subset of the physically impossible. And there are of course finer distinctions that one could designate—for example, some actions may be logically or metaphysically impossible. I won’t worry about such distinctions. Nor will I worry explicitly about the subsets found in the space of the possible. I’m concerned with the impossible.

In a moment, I will also discuss what is generally impossible (i.e., impossible for any remotely human-like being, or perhaps even any possible being at all), and what is particularly possible (i.e., what is possible for an individual—e.g., for me, which could mean me right now or me at any point in my life).

2.1 Physically Impossible Actions

2.1.1 Generally Physically Impossible Actions

As is true for any human, or remotely human-like being (subject to conditions—e.g., gravitational conditions—similar to those found on Earth), it is physically impossible for me to  will myself to spontaneously sprout wings and fly; to jump over a hotel (an example borrowed from Rogers Albritton, more about whom below); to walk across a bridge made of thin wet paper; to lift 100 quintillion pounds; to break through thick iron chains; to construct a square circle; to write out every digit of π; to speak loudly enough to be heard on Mars; to turn myself into Cleopatra; to not respond (as someone with the faculty of audition etc.) to the sound waves coming out of my nearby computer’s speaker, where “respond” refers specifically to the physical processes set off by those sound waves, such as the vibration of my ear drums; to run faster than light; to play all of Chopin’s etudes simultaneously; travel back in time.

I imagine the reader growing quickly bored with such a list, as it is so easily populated. The number of things we human-like beings cannot do far, far outnumbers the things we can. And yet, none of these infinitely many impossible things pose a serious threat to free will, neither individually or collectively. They are not evidence against anyone’s having free will, nor of the complete non-existence of free will.

2.1.2 Particularly Physically Impossible Actions

There are lots of physically possible things that I in particular can’t do that are done everyday by plenty of people. I can’t dunk a basketball; gestate a fetus inside my body; or shape my mouth in such a way to correctly vocalize the distinct Serbian sounds represented by the letters č and ć, though maybe I just lack practice. And maybe with some work, I’d be able to lift 200 pounds and play Chopin’s etudes well on piano (one at time, not simultaneously), neither of which am I able to do right now, nor have I ever been able to do. But I’ll say this: playing Chopin as well as a typical highly trained pianist, much less as well as Martha Argerich, would be for me impossible, no matter how much I dedicated myself to it; as would being able to lift enough to compete in weightlifting competitions.

Now, I’m a much better guitarist than I am a pianist. For example, there is a very difficult composition by Jason Becker called “Mabel’s Fatal Fable” that I can play well at 80 beats per minute (bpm). But as I speed up the metronome from there, my finesse, control, and clarity go with it. By the time I hit the tempo at which Becker recorded it, 105 bpm, I’m struggling a lot. It’s a personal goal to be able to play it. I believe I can with enough work and perhaps by adjusting my technique a little.

But I might not reach that goal, even with loads of practice. It’s hard to find people who can play it well. If I don’t reach the goal, it doesn’t mean I lack free will, at least not directly (e.g., we might say some kind of failure or deficiency of will resulted in my not practicing as much as I should have, or with the intense focus on correcting my technique that I should have). At any rate, there will be some cutoff—say, between 91 and 92 bpm (I hope it’s higher)—when my body simply won’t cooperate with my intentions or wishes or desires; or, let’s say: with what I’m trying to do (more about trying shortly).

At any rate, being one beat per minute away from my Becker-inspired goal is very different than my hoping to (or, let’s face it, fantasy of) playing Chopin like Argerich. But none of this provides evidence against free will: there are limits for each of us as to what is physically possible. We might as well say “limits be damned” and in my heart I may have a goal of 10 trillion bpm (as I assume to be the case for any guitarist of a certain, shredderly disposition), but my mind knows there is a limit even to what I can hear, much less play.

Interestingly, similar observations apply to things that it is within my ability to do—that I used to be able to do quite well—but cannot do now because I’m out of practice. Not to mention things that I used to be able to do that I’ll never be able to do again simply because I’m now 45, and not 12 or 17.

And it’s easy to imagine other ways in which things that are currently possible for me could become impossible, without providing evidence against my having free will. If the world permanently runs out of coffee beans, I’ll lose, in a certain sense, the ability to make coffee.

More interesting is the idea that running out of coffee beans doesn’t restrict whatever free will I have, but rather (assuming I have free will; let’s assume for now that I do) restricts its expression. If all the coffee beans in the world disappear overnight, I will tomorrow morning want to make coffee, and in a certain sense ‘making coffee’ is something I will still be able to do (i.e., will still be something I ‘know how’ to do and have a body that can do), but it will also be physically impossible for me to make coffee. My free will’s expression is thus restricted; but a restricted free will is not (necessarily) a non-existent free will.

[In a certain sense, any typical human at any point in history would be ‘able to make coffee,’ given the beans and a few tools; this would be true even if coffee beans had never existed. Perhaps just as I am, in a certain sense, able to speak any potential human language, even one that never came into existence, given the right exposure and training; this is certainly true of the vast majority of human children. It would take a lot of work indeed to parse out all of the differing sorts of ways one is ‘able’ or ‘not able’ to do something; I wonder if it’s worth it to try.]

Similarly, if I had shoes that allowed me to easily jump over a hotel, this would enable or expand my free will’s expression, in the sense of expanding my repertoire of available actions. And if I lost those shoes, we wouldn’t (or at least I wouldn’t) say that my free will in itself has been shrunken or removed, though we might say that my free will’s expression—or my ability to exercise my free will—has been lessened. I’ll return below to the idea of expressing versus losing one’s free will.

2.1.3 Aside: Brief Note on the “Free” in “Free Will”

I’m writing “free” will here, but the truth is that many observations I make here apply to the unfree will as well. In other words, the expression of my will, free or not, can be expanded with special shoes, or can be restricted by, say, manacling my hands. But the questions here are meant to be about free will, so that’s how I’ll formulate it.

I do so, by the way, as a free will skeptic. Indeed, my skepticism is what motivates the present writing, as I would like my skepticism to be justifiable and clearly articulated. Wish me luck.

I should also note that there is an often encountered usage of free will that isn’t actually a metaphysical claim, but that really just means one’s will (whatever its metaphysical status) is not being restricted, such that one can do whatever one actually wills to do. This conception of ‘freedom of the will’ has a long history, and I take it to be what is invoked by ordinary locutions like “I got into the car of my own free will” (which just means, “I wasn’t coerced by someone to get into the car, wasn’t blown into the car by a strong gust of wind, and so on”).

I myself am happy to speak in this casual and colloquial way, despite being a free will skeptic, just as I’m perfectly content to use words like ‘choose‘ and ‘decide.’ Though I think more care of such language is needed in some contexts, such as in discussions of moral and legal responsibility!

I take it that those discussing free will may sometimes seem more at odds than they actually are, based on mixing up these and related concepts. There is a lot to be said about this, which would require citing yet more sources. I won’t go off the deep end here. But I will mention some, such as the aforementioned Routledge Companion and some others that will come up as I go along.

For now, I’ll mention a paper by Rogers Albritton that I’ll say more about when I discuss trying: “Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action” (Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association, Vol. 59, No. 2 (Nov., 1985), pp. 239–251; also available here for free).

Albritton expresses there a disconnect between his and Elizabeth Anscombe’s view about whether chaining someone up renders that person’s will unfree. Anscombe thinks the chained person’s freedom of will is reduced; Albritton thinks only the person’s freedom of movement is reduced. I agree with Albritton, unless by ‘freedom’ of will we mean the freedom to exercise one’s will. My understand is that Anscombe’s view is by no means as simple as that (particularly given the mention of brains), but I do get the sense that digging into her and Albritton’s work in search of the source of their disconnect may be illuminating with respect to the question of how conceptions of free will (metaphysical or otherwise) developed over the 20th century.

An excellent and more recent source for thinking about such tensions in 20th and 21st century discussions is Peter van Inwagen’s 2017 collection Thinking About Free Will (e.g., Chapter 13, “The problem of Fr** W*ll).

2.1.4 Impossible Actions, Continued

Once again, listing examples of what I in particular cannot do makes for boring reading. And, again, the point is that despite how so very long the list is, even in accumulation it doesn’t provide evidence against my having free will. Unless, of course, on that list we find: The ability to do (or to choose) other than I actually did, when choosing between two or more physically possible options.

[Another way to state that might be: An inability to break the laws of nature/physics. However, it strikes me, on its own, as self-servingly question-begging, though I will ultimately work up to something like this by the end of this writing. In a longer writing, I would bring into the discussion writings such as David Lewis’s paper, “Are We Free to Break the Laws?” (Theoria, Dec 1981).]

My sense, however and as noted above, is that choosing is not in itself an action. On the other hand, if I am deliberating (something I do take to be an action) between, say, a peach and a piece of cake, if I am unable to do other than I finally do (let’s say I choose the peach, with the appropriate understanding of the word choose), we might well say that it was physically impossible for me to choose (i.e., to “deliberate in favor of”) the cake.

[The peach vs. cake example is borrowed from the sixth chapter, called “Free Will,” of Thomas Nagel’s 1987 book, What Does It All Mean?]

I’ll get back to this, as I take all this—i.e., deliberating until I reach a ‘decision’—to be happening within the realm of psychology.

2.2 Psychologically Impossible Actions

2.2.1 Generally Psychologically Impossible Actions

It is generally psychologically impossible to mentally calculate √11 to 100 trillion decimal places; to understand every language spoken on Earth; to willfully believe something other than what one’s senses capture (this is poorly expressed, so here’s an example: I have no choice but to believe that I’m sitting here in this kitchen, writing these words); and on and on.

The general inability to do these and many, many other impossible things provides no evidence about whether anyone has free will or about the existence of free will broadly speaking.

2.2.2 Particularly Psychologically Impossible Actions

There are plenty of psychologically possible things that I cannot do that have no bearing on whether I have free will. I am unable to distinguish the letters č and ć in native-like, spoken Serbian; to solve a fully shuffled Rubik’s cube within ten minutes; to identify the pitches were someone to slam two hands onto a piano; to diagnose the problem with a car by listening to its running motor; to design code for a sophisticated computer program; to beat a chess master at chess (or even a low-ranked player: I have little experience with chess); to translate this paper into eloquent Arabic; to mentally visualize a 10-sided polygon; to perceive from a blueprint what must be done to build a house; to will myself to prefer the taste of rotting meat to that of fresh blueberries; to will myself to prefer the feeling of being set on fire to that of being massaged.

Some of these things I could improve on with practice, but surely it would be impossible for me to reach the full limits of human mental capability. And some things people do naturally are impossible for me: I can’t see sound, or do anything else a synesthete might do.

And, as above with physical impossibility, the expression of my will (free or not) can be enabled or expanded or disabled or restricted given various external influences—cognitive enhancements include language, mathematical tools (e.g., learning about common denominators sure makes adding fractions easier), computers, and caffeine; cognitive restrictors may include alcohol consumption, caffeine withdraw, fear, a sedentary lifestyle, depression, insomnia, and childhood malnutrition.

Significantly, as cognitive restrictors become more severe, it does seem that there begins to arise an actual reduction in will itself: if you had free will, but lost control of your mind (e.g., when taken over by neuroscientists or by brain tumors or amyloid plaques), it is intuitive (to me, at least) that free will would be turned off.

This observation, along with everything discussed here, leads me to the conclusion that free will is, at its core or roots, a psychological (or mental) phenomenon.

To drive this point home, I’d like to consider a more interesting sort of (primarily) psychological activity than the ones I’ve listed so far: trying. That is, one can try to do things that are either possible or impossible. Or so I claim. This isn’t a trivial claim, so I will examine the notion of trying separately.

3. Trying

My goal in this section is to show that trying is primarily—or at least often enough is—a psychological activity. I subsequently hope to show that the psychological dimensions of trying are what make the IP difficult to resolve.

[My hunch is that this hope is on the right track. But I have not yet figured out how to relate trying to the IP, neither for the IP’s resolution nor for its confirmation. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out. Until then, here’s where I am with it. It’s a mess; my apologies.]

First, note that trying, like choosing or free will itself, is not an action in its own right. Rather, trying is a word, or concept, that characterizes certain kinds of actions or series of actions. In other words, one doesn’t try in and of itself: one tries to do something.

I don’t intend to try here to precisely define what it means to try, but rather to exam the concept of trying with respect to trying to do something.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose there is some obvious restriction on the bodily expression of my free will. For example, I may be under the influence of a thoroughly paralytic drug, so that I can’t so much as blink, but wide awake and mentally lucid otherwise. I can still make choices. I can choose to think about walking on the beach versus flying over a flower field versus focusing on my (automated) breathing.

And should someone say to me, “Would you prefer to be kept in this condition? Imagine playing tennis for ‘yes’ and wandering around your apartment for ‘no’,” I can choose to imagine walking around my apartment, a mental activity correlated with reliably identifiable goings-on in the human brain. This example further convinces me that free will is, at its core, a mental phenomenon.

[The example is a reference is to the important work of neuroscientist Adrian Owen and colleagues, as described in his 2017 book Into the Grey Zone.

There are serious questions to be asked about the importance of embodiment in such examples, an instructive popular-level discussion of embodied cognition is found in Benjamin Bergen’s 2012 book Louder Than Words.]

And choosing is, at least in some cases, a mental doing. Including when one is physically free to move. When not paralyzed, I can choose to eat the peach rather than the apple, only to discover that the peaches have run out.

Now, suppose I awaken while paralyzed, but don’t know that I’ve been given a paralytic drug. I try, but fail, to move. In a sense, we might say I chose to move rather than to not move. But we don’t usually talk this way. There’s a certain automaticity to moving, especially upon waking up—to rub one’s eyes or whatever. Just as there’s a certain automaticity to my typing (I ‘chose’ to write the word typing there, I suppose; but didn’t choose to, say, type the letter i in my third stroke following a t in the fourth—it all just kind of falls into place; the same goes for playing a scale or complicated run on the guitar or performing a layup in basketball).

At any rate, if I chose to type the word typing but my keyboard malfunctioned halfway through or a cat jumped on my hands, I could reasonably say that “I tried to type the word typing,” and if it failed at letter i I’d say “I was trying to type the letter i when my keyboard broke.”

Similarly, if I wake up and find myself paralyzed, I could intelligibly say, “I tried to move my arms, but failed.” I’ve experienced something like this due to waking up with my hand very asleep: I try to move it, but can’t; but if I keep trying, it eventually works. Trying might even help it to work faster (trying is a feature of physical therapy). But if my hand still hasn’t responded, say, a year or two or 30 later, does it ever become unintelligible to try to move it?

Similarly, I can try to play “Mabel’s Fatal Fable” at 90 bpm, and even at 105 bpm. What about 200 bpm? At 1000 bpm?

If someone says, “It’s you against this flashlight’s light, first to touch that wall wins,” can I (choose to) try to outrun light?

Can I try to sprout wings? You know, tense up my back and imagine pushing wings out? Compare this to moving a hand (that’s asleep). To will my hand to move, I don’t think, “I will my hand to move.” If there’s any willing at all (as in the case of an awakening hand or what someone might experience in physical therapy following a neurological injury), it’s a kind of willing that trusts the will—trusts the body—to honor the mind-body link. I will my hand to move and, if the link is there, it moves. I need not understand anything about what it takes for this to work. I see no problem, at least for a time, with trying to move a limb that has been amputated. Why not a third arm or wings?

To be clear, were it possible to will myself to sprout wrings, this wouldn’t require an understanding of what that might take—rewriting my DNA or unlocking some hidden potential in my genes. I’d simply trust that I will it to happen, and my body takes care of the rest, perhaps even over a period of months. The point is that I can imagine what (I think) it’d feel like for wings to bud and grow from my back, and what it’d feel like to will this to happen. We might even be able to approximate or train such a feeling with virtual reality. In a virtual reality world, I actually could sprout wings or a third arm, and this could result in detectable corresponding physical changes.

Does any of this mean anything for what counts as trying (to will myself) to sprout wings in the actual world, in the room I’m sitting in right now?

Can I try to mentally picture a square circle, even though I know it’s impossible? It seems to me I have to try at some point to really convince myself that it is impossible, even though I believe those who’ve told me it is impossible.

Now, whether any of these activities amount to trying, they do amount to some sort of mental activity. And it seems to me that some of these activities would correspond to different sorts of goings-on of a certain kind in one’s brain.

[By “certain kind” I mean something analogous to the goings-on observable in the aforementioned cases of communicating with a vegetative person, as in the work of Owen, or in the study of embodied cognition when imagining moving one’s hand shows up as activity in the motor cortex much like that of when one actually moves one’s hand, etc. This sort of work has made it possible, among other things, for a paralyzed person to control a robot arm to have a sip of coffee:

Astonishing!]

Trying to move an arm while it’s asleep would no doubt activate the relevant motor neurons. I have no idea what would happen when trying to sprout wings (stuff involving the back and arms, I’d imagine, unless a virtual reality program trained one to imagine some other bodily mechanism: e.g., “tighten the bottom of your feet”).

But what the brain goings-on actually look like doesn’t strike me as very important. Trying to outrun Billy, which I can just barely do, probably doesn’t look much different than my trying to outrun Barb, which I am just shy of being able to do, or trying to outrun light, which is a priori impossible.

[I’m talking here primarily about brain goings-on related to movement, but also would not assume that any such scenario will result in reliably detectable brain goings-on to do with triumph or disappointment: I might be disappointed to only barely outrun Billy, who’s known to be a slow runner; and might be happy about almost keeping up with Barb, as she’s known to be fast; and I surely can’t bring myself to care about failing to outrun light. And what does any of these states have to do with trying?]

My trying to lift a rock weighing 500 pounds is as hopeless as my trying to lift one that weighs 501 or 1000 pounds, but it all probably looks about the same as far as my body and brain goes.

[The example is a variation on Peter van Inwagen’s noting that

…even if Lewis’s Humean conception of laws is right, it would be an even more difficult task to produce a counterinstance to a law—in the sense in which it would be “even more difficult” for me to lift an object weighing 10,000 kilograms than it would be for me to lift an object weighing 1,000 kilograms. (p 229)

From his 2017 collection Thinking About Free Will. Note the call-back here to my above mention of Lewis and laws. Lewis’s paper, “Are We Free to Break the Laws?”  was a response to van Inwagen. The passage here is from an essay written by van Inwagen well after Lewis’s paper was well known.]

Or perhaps I cannot “try” to lift a rock that heavy, much less a sky scraper or Earth or myself (e.g., by my bootstraps or my hair). My claim is not that I can try to do anything at all, but rather that there are impossible things it seems I can in fact try to do, even if I believe I’ll fail.

[I take it I can try to sink a basket from the other side of the court, guess a pre-selected number from one to a trillion, and, perhaps, flip 50 Heads in a row (which I could continue trying to do for years on end), though I believe I’d fail in all of these. I claim those beliefs justified, but this doesn’t matter, more about which in a moment.]

3.1 Note: Albritton

At any rate, I can try to do—i.e., can set my will upon—all sorts of things, some that take more work to imagine than others. An instructive source for thinking about trying is Rogers Albritton’s aforementioned 1985 paper “Freedom of Will and Freedom of Action” (also available here for free).

In a longer writing, I would dig deeper into Albritton’s paper. Instead, I’ll just dip into a little here. For instance, consider his example of trying to wiggle one’s teeth as one might do one’s tongue. Albritton rejects this as something someone who has accurate notions about teeth can try to do, any more than they can try to will a table to levitate.

But I believe I can try to wiggle my teeth. Even if it means starting by grabbing a tooth and wiggling it to see how it feels. On the other hand, as I fail to wiggle my teeth, I begin to see Albritton’s point.

Another instructive example Albritton shares is that of trying to jump over a hotel versus a lectern. The former, he rejects can be tried, and I agree (at least for anyone who has reasonable beliefs about jumping and buildings, etc.). The latter, one can try.

That is, I presume, if it’s not too tall a lectern. To this I add the following. Imagine we make the lectern incrementally taller. Is there some point at which it becomes impossible to try to jump over it? Should this be the same for for any two people with, let’s say, precisely the same jumping capacities? Or is it subjective? Could it be 12 feet for me, and 14 feet for a nearly sufficiently similar clone of me? Again: trying is, often enough for our purposes here, a psychological state (or disposition?).

As earlier alluded to, where Albritton and most importantly have common ground is in this sort of assertion:

I don’t see (do you?) that my freedom of will would be reduced at all if you chained me up. You would of course deprive me of considerable freedom of movement if you did that; you would thereby diminish my already unimpressive capacity to do what I will. But I don’t see that my will would be any the less free. What about my “freedom of will to walk,” you will ask (or perhaps you won’t, but there the phrase is, in Anscombe’s essay); what about my “freedom of the will in respect of walking”? I reply that I don’t understand either of those phrases. They seem to me to mix up incoherently two different things: free will, an obscure idea which is the one I am after, on this expedition, and the physical ability to walk, a relatively clear idea which has nothing to do with free will. (p 240)

[And again I’ll note that examining the differences in what Albritton and G.E.M. Anscombe mean by ‘free’ with respect to the will—or to pinpoint their source of disagreement, whatever it may turn out to be—would likely be illuminating. (I imagine someone has done this, though I don’t know who.)

The Anscombe writing Albritton references can be found in pages 166–167 of the second volume of her Collected Philosophical Papers, from 1981: Metaphysics and the Philosophy of Mind.

It also may be useful to consider the distinction of what I’ve been characterizing as trying and what Anscombe characterizes as intention (as in her 1957 book Intention). I take it that I can intend to do something that I don’t have to try to do: I intend to drink some of the coffee sitting next to me, but I don’t foresee any obstacle to doing that; the lack of potential for failure seems to me to make this something I don’t ‘try’ to do, but rather simply something that I (choose to) do.]

Again, grappling with Albritton’s paper—particularly our points of disagreement about trying—probably merits a lot more attention (my basic notes on that paper exceed 2000 words).

Here’s where I’ll leave it.

I’m happy to agree that there must be some limit to what we can try to do. If I tell you that I will try to remove your brain tumor, but have no surgical training whatsoever, I am lying. At least in most reasonable contexts; but perhaps trying is contextual, and has some connection to a kind of faith (rather than belief) that is directly proportional to one’s hope. If we’re stranded on Mars and it’s our only hope, I might really have to try to remove your brain tumor (while praying to a deity I usually don’t believe in for guidance).

Also, and this seems to align with Albritton’s thoughts, I might believe I can sprout wings and fly. In which case I could choose to sprout wings and fly. When it doesn’t work, I might say, “Hold on, let me try again.” And if this failure leads to my belief in an inability to sprout wings, then perhaps it becomes impossible for me to try. I say “perhaps,” because this will depend on why I think I’m unable to sprout wings. If I think I’m unable due to some mysterious force that, at any moment, could cease to impede my efforts, then I could continue to try.

I might liken this to trying to get a broken radio to work while stranded on Mars, even years after its having suddenly malfunctioned. Sometimes electronic gadgets suddenly work again—you hit the START button enough times, and a wire falls back in place.

Consider also trying to break through a rock that hasn’t shown signs of budging, with the hope that its structural integrity has been slowly and invisibly challenged, such that one day, even a light tap would reduce it to crumbles. (Doing literally the same thing over and over is impossible, so one often is entitled to expecting different results. It’s a case-by-case situation, and it depends on what one means by ‘same.’)

I’m also reminded here of asking a student to try to draw a Euclidean triangle with side ratios 3:3:7 to help them to develop an intuition about possible triangle proportions. They usually believe that it’s a trivial task, until they try to do it. After a while, I admit that it ceases to be possible for them to try to draw such triangles.

3.2 The Point of Talking About Trying

The point is that the restrictions on trying, whatever and however numerous they may, do not count as evidence against free will. A consequence of this is that, even if I can’t even try to sprout wings and fly, this doesn’t provide evidence that I lack free will (much less evidence that free will is impossible).

Furthermore, I’m arguing that being able to try to do something is perfectly consistent with free will, even if, in some cases, the thing one is trying to do is, in fact, impossible.

(Note that to try to do something, that something must be some sort of action. I can’t “try to have free will” any more than I can “try to wiggle the Big Bang’s uncle” or, I don’t know, “try to transmogrify myself into Cleopatra’s left nostril”… at least not with some sort of transmogrification spell and some faith in such spells.)

This leads me back to the observation that not being able to move one’s fully paralyzed body does not result in a lack of free will. This would also be true of a body that isn’t paralyzed, but rather is under the control of some external force—an evil demon or evil neuroscientist. You might be manipulated like a puppet, but under protest. You might try to fight the neuroscientist’s control, and then choose to retreat to other thoughts, perhaps even falling asleep and entering a lucid dream in which you have again some semblance of bodily control.

Deepen the example, however, so that your mind is under the neuroscientist’s control, so that whatever you try to do—your beliefs and desires, whether you choose to struggle, what you choose to think about, etc.—is under the control of the evil (or, perhaps, beneficent) neuroscientist. It is much more intuitive, then, to say that you now lack the ability to choose or try—in short, you lack free will.

A more economical and efficient version of this is one in which only your beliefs (and perhaps your desires) are under the neuroscientist’s control. You may have many options available to you in principle, but believing (with certainty?) that you only have one option available at any turn would be enough for you to always choose that one option.

(This seems also to remove trying, as I assume, as noted above, that to try implies that there is at least some possibility of failure, and having only one option available means you don’t have the option of failing—i.e., of not performing—that option. So, I can intend to do something that I’m not ‘trying’ to do.)

The scenario is of course now getting close to the very situation free will skeptics worry we humans are actually in. I among them. But not because we believe ourselves to have only one particular option available, but because there appears that there are many available options, but only one is possible; we just don’t know which. This raises unsettling questions, such as why on Earth such a skeptic would waste time debating. I’ve forced myself to confront that question elsewhere: “Why Deliberate?

3.2.1 My Free Will Skepticism

I’m not here to promote free will skepticism, but will briefly say why I’m a free will skeptic. It’s not because of what we might call a strict causal determinism, where humans (or brain cells) are like dominos, destined by a large chain reaction—that is, a larger universal domino effect set off by the Big Bang—to fall in a particular direction at any given moment. This may or may not be what’s going on, but it’s not a picture I find very moving.

[I will say, though, that randomness doesn’t strike me as a convincing threat to such a view, which I explain here: “Free Will & Randomness? No Problem.”

Rather, my free will skepticism is due to the fact that we cannot decide what to desire, or what we desire to desire, or desire to desire to desire, and on and on. Rather, these things are a product of our genes, environment (from the womb onward), biochemistry, education, culture, and on and on. We usually can’t choose those things, but even when we can, we can’t choose which of them to desire to choose, nor which of them to desire to desire to choose, and on and on.

In short, we don’t, and in fact can’t, self-create.

This view has its best-known recent expression in Galen Strawson’s essay, “The Impossibility of Moral Responsibility” (Philosophical Studies. 75, pp. 1–2, 5–24; read it for free here), but is not new. See, for instance, Arthur Schopenhauer’s Essay on the Freedom of the Will, in which, again, freedom to express one’s will is distinguished from the freedom to will what one will’s (the latter, notes Schopenhauer, we can’t do).

Another way to put this is that I don’t rely on science—e.g., physics, neuroscience—to ground my free will skepticism (which is to say that my intuition doesn’t rely on those things). I explain this here: “Free Will Skepticism Doesn’t Need Science.”

Plenty of people (i.e., compatibilists) maintain that such observations, including when grounded in stricter forms of causal determinism, are irrelevant to whether we have free will or, perhaps the same thing, whether we bear moral responsibility for our actions.

This returns to mind the aforementioned Frankfurt cases, my rejection of which I’ve written about here: “Frankfurt Cases & Moral v. Legal Responsibility.”

And in another post, I consider a thought experiment from compatibilist Carolina Sartorio’s 2016 book Causation and Free Will, involving a case in which a bolt of lightning results in a pre-fertilization genetic mutation, such that the child conceived post-fertilization grows up to commit a murder. It strikes me that such though experiments can help us understand where compatibilist and incompatibilist intuitions diverge.

Ok. So it’s impossible to self-create. This perhaps brings us back to the (potential) paradox in question. Is it possible to try to self-create? Not in the sense I’m describing, or so it seems to me. I could seek gene therapy or genetic intervention, but I’d have to decide what sort to seek. I can try to change my desires, but that will be according to the desires I desire to desire. This regress, which I’ve by now belabored, seems to make even the idea of self-creation unintelligible (even in the charitable conception of ‘self-creation,’ in which it doesn’t not literally require somehow creating your own physical body from scratch).

At any rate, perhaps it is like the square-circle, where one can try at first to construct such a form, but after some failed efforts, realize that to claim to be ‘trying’ to construct one becomes a dishonest claim.

[Here also is a brief note on empirical, or observable, or ‘scientific’ evidence against free will:

As I note above, I don’t look to physics or neuroscience for this. In a longer article, I would address some of the results that are broadly referred to as Libet-style tests, information about which I linked to earlier. I also mentioned Sam Harris’s book earlier; he finds such studies compelling, particularly as they have grown in sophistication, and with the assumption that they will, or at least conceivably could, grow as technology and scientific understanding advances.

I definitely agree with Harris and many others that neuroscience is critical for helping us to understand what the terrible effects can be of, say, a brain tumor pushing against an amygdala. I talk about this in some of the other posts I link here, including with input from neuroscientists on the limited extent to which we can rely on brain imagining as courtroom evidence these days. The long and short of it is that we are very far from showing that, as Harris once characterized the mind-brain-behavior relation in general, on his podcast in a discussion with Daniel Dennett: “it is brain tumors all the way down” (#39, “Free Will Revisited,” 7/3/16; read transcript here).

More recent conceptual and technological advances are discussed by Andrea Lavazza in, for example: “Free Will and Neuroscience: From Explaining Freedom Away to New Ways of Operationalizing and Measuring It” (2016) and “Why Cognitive Sciences Do Not Prove That Free Will Is an Epiphenomenon” (2019). I have enjoyed reading and being challenged by these papers, but won’t address them here.

Here are just a few more of the many other useful resources for exploring the connection between empirical work and free will I’ve found useful: “Philosophers and neuroscientists join forces to see whether science can solve the mystery of free will” (by Bahar Gholipour at Science, 2019); Eddy Nahmias’s homepage; and The Brain Institute’s website.

That said, what I’m interested in here in particular is, conceptually speaking, what sorts of observations about what it is impossible for humans to do should serve as evidence against free will, and what connection free will, as a concept in itself, has to impossibility.]

3.2.2 To Try (continued)

So where does this leave us with trying? It seems to me that trying depends on psychological factors, such as to do with what one believes about the nature of an event with respect to its potential to rightly bear the label action, and with respect to the event’s status in the space of (im)possibility.

In short, if it possible to try to do something (generally or particularly) physically impossible (e.g., sprout wings), this doesn’t work against the existence of free will. And if it is impossible to even try to do such a thing, then this may or may not work against free will. For example, if it turns out it’s not even possible to try to sprout wings or to jump over a hotel or to grow bigger than the universe, this doesn’t seem to threaten free will.

But if it’s impossible to try to, say, outrun someone who has roughly the same running ability you do, this might seem that this does in fact work against free will. But perhaps it doesn’t.

That is, the worry here is not whether the word trying can be reasonably attached to the activity of running at the required speed. The worry is that, even if the person tries to win the race, it is simply not possible for them, at that moment, to achieve the required speed. It may never be possible. The other person (while in their present condition; i.e., barring injuries or age-based deterioration, etc.) might always win by at least a tenth of a second. But this is precisely the sort of physical impossibility that doesn’t work against free will.

Suppose again that I’m chained up. I try to move. I can try and try, until trying becomes obviously futile. But the point at which trying goes from making sense (perhaps the chains can be loosened if I squirm around enough) to being futile, is a psychological question. Maybe I believe it’ll require a year of squirming to get loose. This matters. Some people are more persistent than others (and its a trope of self-help books to call this a virtue, in fact; a sign of ‘self-determination’ and of a ‘winner’). When, as outsiders, would we think it nonsensical to say, “stop trying to squirm free of those chains; it’ll never happen.”

What we need in order to say free will isn’t possible, it seems to me, is for it to be impossible to try, which is not in itself an action. Rather, trying is a characterization of a certain (often enough) psychological state one assumes when performing actions in contexts that admit of the possibility of failure. Roughly speaking.

[E.g., it might not make sense to say that you are trying to outrun someone you believe you will always beat, if only by a 20th of a second (“I don’t have to try, I just have to run as fast and as hard as I possibly can”), but it would make sense to try to beat someone who’s always beaten you by a tenth of a second so far, but you believe you could beat with enough effort and the right mindset. The former doesn’t count as trying and the latter does, even though in every other respect your activities look exactly the same. That said, perhaps in the latter condition you might also adopt the ‘there’s no try, only do’ mindset, but this is a kind of self-motivating psychological trick; intuitively, it would certainly be trying.]

I don’t have a complete or good enough theory of trying to pursue this claim further. But I have a strong hunch that trying is important for both free will and for addressing the IP.

For now, I’ll say that I raise the point in order to bolster what I said earlier: free will is something that happens in the mind. Trying is (often enough) a psychological phenomenon, and seems to have some connection with free will.

[A deeper question here is if it possible to try and always fail, yet still have free will? This strikes me as possible. I might spend all my time trying to do things that are just beyond my abilities. But if it can reasonably be said that my psychological state is one that can be characterized as trying, then I might have free will.

Is it possible to try if one doesn’t have free will? I’m not sure it is in any sense of the word we care about. I’m tempted to say that it is possible, but under a certain understanding of the word, as is the case with to choose, which I believe can be defined in intuitively satisfying ways that are consistent with free will skepticism. To deliberate is much harder, in my opinion, and to try strikes me as likely harder still.

In lieu of having worked all this out, what I’m committing to here is that if it is impossible to try, then you don’t have free will. Ultimately, this might not be saying much at all. If free will skepticism is essentially that our actions are as undetermined by us as they would be if we were controlled by an evil demon (or beneficent angel), then I see know way to salvage the notion of trying in that picture.]

And, again, if I’m chained up, I may cease to be able to try to break free, but I can try to calm my thoughts and to take my mind off the situation. I can try to focus on my breathing or to imagine myself strolling through a sculpture park with my girlfriend.

Whether I’m ultimately correct about the role of trying in free will, these observations further solidify my thought that the formulation of what one wills is a psychological phenomenon, and that there must be alternative possibilities even at that stage of one’s activities in order to say that a person is enjoying free will.

Where trying is not so important is in something as simple as choosing between a peach or a pear if those are the two available snacks. Choosing between a peach and slice of cake might be only a little harder (if one is easily tempted by cake). In other words, choosing between two roughly equally possible alternatives doesn’t seem to say much about trying, though it may something about free will.

And, again, without alternative possibilities, one might have free will but it be turned off. Which suggests the possibility that everyone who ever lives on Earth, or in the universe for that matter, could have free will that is ‘turned off,’ but this seems to miss the point. It casts free will as a thing in itself, rather than as a characterization of an agent’s relation to their available (i.e., ‘possible’) actions. I won’t dig into that here, but rather will continue to worry primarily about what counts for or against an individual having free will at any point in their existence.

4. Choosing the Peach; Or: (Not) Resolving the Paradox

[This closing section is also a mess; more apologies.]

Here’s where I attempt, and fail, to isolate the misstep in the construction of the IP, which, again is:

Impossibility Paradox (IP): Impossibility does not count as evidence against free will. Free will skepticism comes down to the belief that free will is impossible. Paradoxically, then, (correctly) declaring free will impossible does not settle the question of free will’s possibility or existence.

Here’s an overview of the ground so far covered.

I’ve listed examples of actions that, despite being impossible, do not count as evidence against free will. Chaining me up doesn’t remove my free will, so much as it puts a restriction on the expression of my free will. In other words, it narrows the alternatives that are available to me as I go about making choices about what to do next. If you narrow my alternatives even more, say through some sort of mind control, then my free will has been ‘turned off’ (so to speak).

It’s tempting to say that ‘lack of free will’ amounts to living life in a state analogous to that of being chained up. But this strikes me as doubtful, at least at first blush. That is, I could be put into a world where I only have one option available to me at any point, but only as an accident. This is just a restriction of free will, not evidence against free will. The problem here seems to do with our conception of free will, as a certain relationship between an agent and their range of available activities. In other words, to have free will just is to be in a world where there are, at least sometimes, two or more options available as an agent goes about choosing what they’ll do next.

This leads me to think that, to say that free will is impossible (for humans), is to say that, in all possible worlds, beings (or at least human-like beings) are in a state in which they only ever have one choice available to them are physically and psychologically ‘chained up,’ so to speak.

Again, though I think the difference between asking “do I have free will?” and “is free will possible at all?” is important, I’m not pursuing the distinction here, so much as looking for what, conceptually, counts as evidence against free will.

The foregoing brings me to the following conclusions. Free will is a characterization of our relationship to our activities, in particular, or most fundamentally, our psychological (or mental) activities. The psychological activities in question are those that can, in turn, be characterized as choosing, trying, and related (e.g., deciding, which may or may not be synonymous with choosing), when those terms are understood to involve alternative possibilities in the relevant sense (i.e., in the sense that, after having chosen, I could have chosen otherwise, even given roughly the exact same pre-conditions).

We may use words like choosing and trying when deliberate, conscious willing is likely not at issue (e.g., ‘choosing’ to play a particular note in a fast, highly elaborate, and long phrase as part of a musical improvisation). The focus here, however, is on when those words refer to deliberate, conscious willing. Also important is that choosing and trying involve concepts that can intelligibly characterize activities, though exactly what that characterization is remains unclear. Can I really try to lift a building? Can I choose to try to lift a building?

The upshot of this is that I take it to be a fair description of free will to say that, if it exists, it is fundamentally psychological (or mental) in nature. Indeed, this is what folks such as Libet are relying on when they ask participants to track when they decide whether to do a or b. Given this, folks who are (momentarily) paralyzed, bound in chains, or are being bodily controlled like a puppet by some external agent (including their big sister pulling a stop-hitting-yourself maneuver), haven’t lost their free will, so much as their free will’s expression has been restricted.

Indeed, a Libet-style experiment might see someone decide at time t to move their finger, only for the person to find the finger has fallen sleep. I might choose the peach, only for someone to grab it before I can or a forcefield mysteriously appears around it every time I reach for it. Certainly it was possible to choose the peach, it just wasn’t possible for me to actually grab it and then to put it in my mouth and chew it up etc.

[Of which, by the way, there are infinitely many ways that ‘event’ can be accomplished: I could eat it with my left or right hand, eat it in 19 or 20 bites, etc. It’s difficult to say what an ‘event’ is when we say “there is only one event that can happen,” particularly if we aren’t relying on strict causal determinism. I will worry about this here to as little an extent as I can manage.]

But this is not a matter of lacking free will. To lack free will would be more like: at the moment I take myself to be choosing, the mental process of choosing is run in such a way that, strictly speaking, I really had no choice it all: I could not have done other than choose the peach.

At any rate, the restriction that seems to matter most is on what is psychologically particularly impossible. And for me to have free will (or at least to have turned on), it seems I must have at least two actions simultaneously available to me at some point in my life. The question is whether this is the same as saying that both events must be physically possible.

[An abandoned turn at this section, but perhaps worth noting:

Suppose whenever I believe myself to be ‘choosing’ (in the strict, free will sense), I’m only really able to choose one thing—in this case, a peach. In an important sense, it is impossible for me to choose the cake. It’s not beyond me, as with outrunning light, to choose slices of cake. But at this moment, it is beyond me in a sense much like that one to choose anything but the peach.

Now, psychological (or mental) activities are a subset of physical activities. So, if it’s determined (in whatever sense) that I’ll choose the peach, it’s physically impossible for me not to. It seems to me that this is no different than it being physically impossible for me to, say, outrun light or to multiply any two 3000-digit numbers, impossibilities that don’t negate my having free will.

It is tempting to say something like the following. There is a type of activity: choosing between two food items. There is a token of that activity: this instance of choosing between food items. And so on. But this strikes me as hopelessly arbitrary. The same trick could be applied with, say, my inability to perform an action today that, for whatever reason, I’d be able to perform on a different day, yet we wouldn’t say this counts as evidence agains my having free will.

Continuing… ]

Here’s what I mean. The events in question are: (1) Choose to eat the peach (i.e., form the mental content that affirms or gives a green lights the series of actions such that the peach is grabbed, paid for, elevated to the mouth, eaten, etc.); (2) Choose to eat the cake.

Clearly both of these actions are psychologically possible, in the sense that, (for most humans) formulating a mental state that amounts to sincerely representing “I choose the peach” does not belong on the list of psychologically impossible things I began to populate earlier. Same goes for “I choose then cake.” If I lack free will, however, then it turns out that only one of those events is possible.

In other words, the ‘event’ in question is not just “choosing the peach,” but “choosing the peach at time t, under such and such conditions.” If I lack free will, and I chose the peach, then that was the only physically action available to me. Or, in other words, that was possible for me to perform. It was impossible for me to do otherwise. Another way to put this is that, whatever laws are in place that make it the case that I can only choose the peach, it is impossible for me to defy those laws. Just, perhaps, as it is impossible for me to outrun light.

If our conception of free will is such that being unable to do something impossible does not rule out free will, then not being able to defy the laws that ensure my choosing the peach should not rule out free will. I wouldn’t even know how to try to defy such a law.

[Suppose you tell me in advance what the laws in question say I’ll do. Then I can do otherwise. I’ve explored this strange outcome here: “Laplace’s Demon Defeated by Human Consciousness.”]

We might then restrict ourselves to things that in themselves are impossible when talking about such evidence. But this seems arbitrary (though I’ve not exactly borne this out yet). And the difficulty of saying what counts as an event (such that merits the label action etc.) might make this even more difficult. I’m able to make coffee, in a certain sense, when there are no coffee beans left in the world. But it is impossible full-stop for me to ‘make coffee when there are no coffee beans.’ Which of these is the obvious event to worry about?

The other issue such a move fails to, but should be expected to, account for is the following. If you are in a world in which you always have exactly two options available to you (i.e., possible for you to perform) at any point, you may have free will—namely, if it is true that you are physically capable of choosing to do either of those options, such that you could have done other than you in fact did. (This may even be true if the two available options are particularly [or generally?] psychologically possible to choose, but only one is particularly physically possible for you to in fact complete; i.e., when ‘trying’ is involved.)

But if we make it so that you only ever have one available particularly psychologically possible action at every moment of your life, then we would say you don’t have free will (turned off or full-stop, depending on whether you think free will is (A) an endowment [e.g., “you, as an assemblage of proper material parts, are endowed with alternative possibilities, perhaps by higher-order or complex consciousness within a certain kind of environment, when the default status for collections of matter, even conscious ones, is to not have alternative possibilities”] or (B) something you automatically have or get for free, e.g., by virtue of complex consciousness alone, until it’s restricted within a certain kind of environment).

[In other words, depending on whether you think you (A) come to enjoy free will thanks to existing within the purview of a certain set of laws, but free will is not a default starting position; or (B) free will is the default, starting position, but can be restricted by local laws. In yet other terms, (A) free will is the name put on a certain state of affairs, once relevant conditions are satisfied; or (B) is a metaphysical entity that exists in its own right, independent of human thoughts and behavior, such that when one can or cannot be said to have free will is a matter when that entity is not being stifled.

More simply, it may be the difference between free will being something that is (A) given versus something that can only be (B) left alone or taken away. Finally, an subset of this expression may be that free will is (A) a materialist/physicalist condition to aspire to (perhaps hopelessly); (B) a spiritual phenomenon, involving an immaterial mind or soul.]

But why do we say you don’t have free will when there’s only one option available at every moment of your life? Because when faced with circumstance A you have only one option, and it is physically impossible for you to do anything but that; and the same for circumstances B, C, D, E… and so on to the last circumstance of your life.

And so, if the laws or your environment and your physical constitution (a brain’s goings-on, parts of which correspond to your mental states and so, again, are a subset of your bodily states) are such that it is impossible to do action a in circumstance c, then it does not unambiguously resolve the IP to say that the state of always having only one available action is precisely what we mean by ‘free will.’ In this case, free will is not in itself an action, but rather makes a claim about our general relationship to our repertoire of physically available actions.

The problem is that if we look at any given circumstance or choice, we don’t see evidence against free will. Perhaps this is fine. Perhaps it’s the accumulation that matters. But this is not how we think about or investigate free will. We talk about free will as though it has meaning for particular choices and particular actions.

In other words, we can agree that, conceptually, ‘free will’ characterizes certain relations with respect to possible actions. But we can’t point to any given action to serve as evidence against that applicability of that label, including, frustratingly, the paradigm case of “having no alternative possibilities available.” Even though it seems especially obvious that a person with no psychologically available options (e.g., while being mind-controlled by a neuroscientist) has no (access to) free will.

I remain frustrated. I still assume I’m making a mistake. But I also suspect, as I have for some time, that all of our discussions of free will are fraught. I also remain a free will skeptic, for reasons I’ve already noted, that don’t rely on empirical evidence so much as on a priori reasoning about the inability to self-create.

I’ll close with a comforting passage from Robert Nozick’s ambitious 1981 book, Philosophical Explanations:

Over the years I have spent more time thinking about the problem of free will—it felt like banging my head against it—than about any other philosophical topic except perhaps the foundations of ethics. Fresh ideas would come frequently, soon afterwards to curdle. … The presentation of many of these ideas and approaches may spur the reader to a success that has eluded me, or at least lift her spirits temporarily in this most frustrating and unyielding of problems. We approach the issue of free will from many directions. If we cannot solve the problem, at least we can surround it. (p 293)


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